Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's operatic success was recognised tonight with the top Maori arts award.

The internationally renowned soprano was among 10 leading Maori artists to receive recognition from Creative New Zealand's Maori arts board, Te Waka Toi, at a Wellington ceremony.

Accepting the top award from England, Dame Kiri said her parents had made great sacrifices to enable her to have the life and career she had enjoyed.

"My mother told me 60 years ago that it was the Maori part of me which would be important. My father, Thomas Te Kanawa, would have been very proud indeed if he had known about my Te Waka Toi award."

Te Waka Toi chair Darrin Haimona said the new award paid tribute to Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, the late Maori Queen it was named for.

"It is fitting that the inaugural presentation made tonight by her son, Te Arikinui Kingi Tuheitia, is to another Maori dame with exceptional mana."

The Te Waka Toi awards were a chance to celebrate the lives and successes of Maori artists, Mr Haimona said.

"All are truly amazing individuals who delight and inspire others with their enthusiasm and have collectively made Maori arts stronger and better."

Artistic director, dancer and choreographer Taiaroa Royal received was recognised for creative innovation, while educator and historian Te Onehou Phillis was recognised for the promotion of Te Reo Maori.

Five kaumatua received lifetime achievement awards for their support and practice of Maori arts.

Those receiving the Nga Tohu a Ta Kingi Ihaka award were Jossie Kaa, Kihi Ngatai, Tata Maere, Vera Morgan and Wiremu Kaa.

Two emerging Maori artists - visual artist Reuben Friend and moko artist Taryn Te Uira Beri - were awarded scholarships to assist with further study.